& cplSiteName &

Demystifying NFV

James Crawshaw

As an industry analyst looking through my microscope at the telecom technology industry, it is easy to lose track sometimes of just how niche some of the terminology that we bandy about really is. Take NFV for example. A Google Trends search of Network Function Virtualization* (NFV) shows interest in this search term has steadily grown since 2012 when ETSI published its first whitepaper on the topic. However, the search term "Software-Defined Networking" (SDN) is currently four times more popular than NFV. Moreover, the popularity of both terms pales into insignificance when we compare with searches for 5G and IoT.

So, if like the vast majority of the planet you are still wondering what NFV is, let us try to cut through the jargon and explain things clearly. The best place to start is with the initial ETSI whitepaper on NFV, which was written by network architects from various telecom operators (AT&T, CenturyLink and Verizon to name a few) and presented at the SDN and OpenFlow World Congress in October 2012. As the paper explains, one of the challenges that operators face with traditional network equipment is that each new network service often requires new proprietary hardware appliances. Given the rapid pace of innovation of new services (DSL, FTTC, 3G, 4G, etc.), operators are often hard-pressed to simply find room for the additional equipment. Moreover, managing a network with so many complex, hardware-based appliances requires highly specialized skills, which often makes the operator dependent on equipment suppliers for support. This in turn leads to vendor lock-in, which results in high operating and capital expenses.

NFV aims to address these issues by using standard virtualization technology, which has been used in enterprise IT systems since the 1990s. The concept of virtualization dates back even further to the 1960s when it was used to share mainframe computer capacity between different users. The basic idea behind NFV is to extract the functionality of a proprietary hardware appliance (router, firewall, etc.) as software and then run this software on industry-standard, high-volume servers, switches and storage. Not only can multiple software functions run simultaneously on the same physical device through the magic of virtualization, but these devices can be located anywhere in the network -- in a datacenter, in a network node or in the end customer premises. This avoids the space constraints that operators face in certain network nodes and avoids the need to deploy a new box at a customer site each time a new service (e.g., firewall) is requested. Moreover, as the hardware is all commercial off-the-shelf and industry standard this should be cheaper than the current practice of buying proprietary hardware with custom ASICs.

What has made NFV feasible now is recent improvements in packet handling within x86 processors. This has enabled CPU cores to be used as network processors with throughputs comparable to proprietary ASICs. However, the telcos want the vendors to go one step further, not just redesigning their products to run on industry standard hardware but to do so in a standardized way that enables the software to be run in a virtual machine or even in containers.

As well as saving on hardware and associated energy costs, NFV is also meant to make it easier for operators to roll out new services and to rapidly scale these up or down as required. Specifically, the ETSI whitepaper cites the possibility of running production, test and reference facilities on the same infrastructure to provide more efficient test and integration, reducing development costs and time to market.

If you've made it this far down the article, you may be wondering how NFV differs from SDN, which we also mentioned at the start. The ETSI whitepaper touches lightly on the overlap with SDN stating that the two are complementary but not interdependent. In a nutshell, SDN is about separating the control plane in network infrastructure from the data plane such that the control plane can be centralized (enabling easier management of the network) while the data, or forwarding plane, remains distributed in nodes at the network edge (reducing backhaul traffic and latency). NFV, on the other hand, is about redesigning a proprietary network device as software that runs on virtual machine instances, which in turn run on industry standard hardware. The two topics are related but quite different.

So, five years on from the original whitepaper where have operators got to with NFV? AT&T has been the most vocal on this with a goal of virtualizing 75% of its target workloads by 2020 up from 6% at the end of 2015. AT&T hit its target of 30% by the end of 2016. More recently China Telecom has said that it is working towards a goal of 80% virtualization by 2025 and representatives of Vodafone's German subsidiary have said they are aiming for 60% by 2020. (See Virtualization Frustration Sees Telcos Rebel.)

For most operators, NFV adoption is likely to be a gradual process. EXFO, a provider of network test and analytics solutions, thinks service providers will adopt NFV in three distinct phases:

  1. Virtualization: transitioning from hardware to software
  2. Service automation: automating service delivery processes
  3. Complete integration of service assurance (SA) into DevOps: reaching the ultimate goal of optimized operational efficiency, agile service creation and increased revenue

Right now, most service providers are in Phase 1, EXFO says, adding that a few of the more innovative operators are just starting to move into Phase 2.

Light Reading's sister site, Virtuapedia, runs a biannual operator survey on their virtualization plans and deployments. What these surveys tell us is that for most operators, virtualization will take many years to fully deploy. Generally, we find that telcos are taking longer than originally anticipated to identify all of their high-priority functions to virtualize. Furthermore, most respondents expect that the opex savings that NFV promises won't be achieved for at least another three to five years, if at all.

That's not to say that we should get despondent about NFV and dismiss it as hype. NFV does, in theory, make sense for operators. The trick is to make virtualized networks easier to operate than the current plethora of complex network platforms and support systems. There is no point trading one set of operational headaches for a different but equally intractable set of operational headaches introduced by NFV. Solving these operational issues will take time and forms part of a broader OSS transformation for operators worldwide.

This blog is sponsored by EXFO.

— James Crawshaw, Senior Analyst, OSS/BSS Transformation, Heavy Reading

* Searches for the acronym NFV are mostly looking for material on the Northern German Football Association -- Norddeutscher Fussball-Verband. Searches for SDN are generally looking for Malaysian limited companies, SDN being the equivalent of plc or Inc.

(0)  | 
Comment  | 
Print  | 
Newest First  |  Oldest First  |  Threaded View        ADD A COMMENT
More Blogs from Heavy Lifting Analyst Notes
Telecom operators need to move from complex, error-prone manual test processes to more automated, consistent and streamlined test procedures where admin is minimized.
ON2020 has been surveying the optical networking needs and evolution strategies of leading network operators and is ready to share the results at ECOC 2017.
Just a few years ago, Gigabit mobile broadband was almost unthinkable. In 2017 it will be a reality.
Despite some challenges ahead, the utility sector remains a promising one for LPWA, not least because utilities themselves are seeing the benefits of becoming more digital throughout their operations, and because of the increasing coverage of networks and availability of key enabling components, such as communications modules from a broadening ecosystem.
Software-defined wide area network (SD-WAN) is offering cable multiple system operators (MSOs) a leg up in the market, offering solutions other than fiber, such as DOCSIS 3.1; however, it is not without its challenges.
From The Founder
NFV's promises of automation and virtualization are intriguing, but what really excites service providers is the massive amount of money they could save.
Flash Poll
Live Streaming Video
Charting the CSP's Future
Six different communications service providers join to debate their visions of the future CSP, following a landmark presentation from AT&T on its massive virtualization efforts and a look back on where the telecom industry has been and where it's going from two industry veterans.
LRTV Documentaries
Three Gets Smart(y), BT Invokes Twitter – The Recap

8|21|17   |     |   (0) comments

From Telecoms.com, a recap of the week's telecoms talking points. It's been a week of gimmicks as Three tests out a pay-as-you-go sub-brand called Smarty; Comcast
Women in Comms Introduction Videos
VMWare VP Brings Women Up With Her

8|16|17   |   6:49   |   (1) comment

It's an art and a science to make mentorship, inclusive leadership, diversity and promotion of high-potential women work, says Honore' LaBourdette, vice president of Global Market Development at VMWare.
LRTV Documentaries
5G Spectrum Wars – The Recap

8|15|17   |   2:22   |   (0) comments

Service provider 3 has filed a lawsuit against Ofcom over 5G spectrum auction in the UK.
LRTV Custom TV
Say What? Facebook Unleashes AI Anarchy – The Recap

8|7|17   |     |   (0) comments

A recap of the week's talking points on Light Reading's sister site, telecoms.com. Facebook AI programmers had a bit of a brain-fade as they allowed one of its AI applications to invent its ...
Women in Comms Introduction Videos
Fujitsu's Women Band Together to Help Girls Do STEM

8|2|17   |   9:35   |   (1) comment

Supporting women both inside and outside of Fujitsu is a top priority of the telecom vendor. Yanbing Li, Fujitsu Network Communication's director of System Software Development & Delivery, shares why it's important, but why there's still a long road ahead.
LRTV Custom TV
If You're Not First, You're Last – The Recap

7|31|17   |   08:18   |   (1) comment

In case you missed it, Amazon's 1% stock increase helped Jeff Bezos dethrone Bill Gates as the richest man in the world. Also, Taiwanese electronics manufacturer
Women in Comms Introduction Videos
AT&T's Tech President Preps Workforce for the Future

7|26|17   |   5:47   |   (10) comments

AT&T is focused on the software-defined network of the future and is reskilling its workforce to get ready too, according to AT&T's President of Technology Development Melissa Arnoldi.
Women in Comms Introduction Videos
Cisco: Mentoring Critical to Attract & Retain Women

7|19|17   |   6:40   |   (1) comment

Liz Centoni, senior vice president and general manager of Cisco's Computing System Product Group, shares why mentoring in all its forms is important for women and what Cisco is doing that's made a difference for women in tech.
LRTV Custom TV
Gigabit LTE With Snapdragon 835

7|12|17   |     |   (1) comment

At an event in Wembley stadium, EE used its live network to demonstrate gigabit LTE using a Sony Xperia XZ Premium smartphone with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 chip.
LRTV Custom TV
Implementing Machine Intelligence With Guavus

7|12|17   |     |   (0) comments

Guavus unites big data and machine intelligence, enabling many of the the largest service providers in the world to save money and drive measureable revenue. Learn how applying Machine Intelligence substantially reduces operational costs and in many cases can eliminate subscriber impact, meaning a better subscriber experience and higher NPS.
LRTV Custom TV
Unlocking Customer Experience Insights With Machine Intelligence

7|12|17   |     |   (0) comments

When used to analyze operational data and to drive operational decisions, machine intelligence reduces the number of tasks which require human intervention. Guavus invested in Machine Intelligence early. Learn about the difference between Machine Learning and Machine Intelligence.
Women in Comms Introduction Videos
Verizon VP Talks Network, Career Planning

7|12|17   |   4:49   |   (0) comments

Heidi Hemmer, vice president of Technology, Strategy & Planning at Verizon, shares how bold bets and the future of tech define her career.
Upcoming Live Events
September 28, 2017, Denver, CO
October 18, 2017, Colorado Convention Center - Denver, CO
November 1, 2017, The Royal Garden Hotel
November 1, 2017, The Montcalm Marble Arch
November 2, 2017, 8 Northumberland Avenue, London, UK
November 30, 2017, The Westin Times Square
All Upcoming Live Events
With the mobile ecosystem becoming increasingly vulnerable to security threats, AdaptiveMobile has laid out some of the key considerations for the wireless community.
Hot Topics
Intel CEO Leaves Trump Biz Advisory Board
Dan Jones, Mobile Editor, 8/15/2017
Orchestration Startup UBiqube Pivots Away From NFV
Carol Wilson, Editor-at-large, 8/15/2017
T-Mobile Turns On First 600MHz 4G Sites
Dan Jones, Mobile Editor, 8/16/2017
WiCipedia: Dolly Babes, Manifesto Backlash & 'Brotastic' Failures
Eryn Leavens, Special Features & Copy Editor, 8/18/2017
Stream or Split, Says Amazon
Aditya Kishore, Practice Leader, Video Transformation, Telco Transformation, 8/16/2017
Like Us on Facebook
Twitter Feed
Animals with Phones
Talk About a Custom-Made Workstation! Click Here
Proper ergonomics indeed.
Live Digital Audio

Understanding the full experience of women in technology requires starting at the collegiate level (or sooner) and studying the technologies women are involved with, company cultures they're part of and personal experiences of individuals.

During this WiC radio show, we will talk with Nicole Engelbert, the director of Research & Analysis for Ovum Technology and a 23-year telecom industry veteran, about her experiences and perspectives on women in tech. Engelbert covers infrastructure, applications and industries for Ovum, but she is also involved in the research firm's higher education team and has helped colleges and universities globally leverage technology as a strategy for improving recruitment, retention and graduation performance.

She will share her unique insight into the collegiate level, where women pursuing engineering and STEM-related degrees is dwindling. Engelbert will also reveal new, original Ovum research on the topics of artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things, security and augmented reality, as well as discuss what each of those technologies might mean for women in our field. As always, we'll also leave plenty of time to answer all your questions live on the air and chat board.